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Meet the Serbian Businessman/DJ Who Runs the Zombie AI Southwest Journal

Among Nebojša Vujinović Vujo's portfolio of 2,000 spammy websites, the defunct Minneapolis neighborhood newspaper is a top performer.

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Nebojša Vujinović Vujo performing as DJ Vujo#91 nine years ago.

You'd be forgiven for assuming the Southwest Journal is dead. And you'd be correct. Sort of.

The Southwest Journal that covered parks, schools, and small businesses around southwest Minneapolis from 1990 through 2020 is indeed one of the 360+ newsrooms that died off during the pandemic. Yet if you head over to its old website today, hundreds of new stories bubble beneath a banner that still reads "SOUTHWEST Journal," though the homepage's skyscraper skyline image can hardly be mistaken for Linden Hills. Headlines about Sebastian Joe's and airport sound mitigation are hidden deep in the archives, replaced by fresher ones like about the 13 tallest buildings in NYC, the 15 most dangerous fish in the world, and Tucker Carlson's net worth.

"So many people from Minnesota ask what happened to that website. And nothing special happened. I just bought the domain and built a new website from scratch," says current owner Nebojša Vujinović Vujo, adding that the Tucker post did 10,000 pageviews in one day. "We don't create so much things about Minnesota anymore—maybe 1 percent is about Minnesota."

Affable and earnest, Vujo recently chatted with us from his apartment in Belgrade, Serbia. I became aware of him and his empire of 2,000 content-mill websites from a recent Wired piece headlined, "Confessions of an AI Clickbait Kingpin." That excellent profile describes defunct, once-popular websites—feminist blog The Hairpin, Pope Benedict XVI's Pope2you.net, former President Trump's TrumpPlaza.com—that Vujo has acquired and populated with clickbait articles designed to juice traffic from search engines and, thus, earn money from programmatic advertising. Sponcon and paid backlinks provide additional revenue. (Vujo says a porn website once offered to outright buy Pope2you.net, but "that's a bad thing, I'd never do that.")

The sites Wired cited sounded a lot like the current zombie Southwest Journal and, sure enough, when I scanned it for contact info, Vujo's company Shantel appeared.

The Bosnia-born cybersquatter employs a team of 50-ish workers to "humanize" and fact check content from a Serbian office, though nowadays AI programs perform about 90% of the actual writing. While he doesn't maintain any illusions about the quality of those stories (SWJ's biggest hit is a listicle about the 15 richest porn stars), he insists his heart is in the right place.

"My main goal on the internet is never to get just the money, you know?" says the millennial father who fled the Yugoslav Wars during his youth. "I really love to create—imagine every day 2 to 3 million people reading my articles."

Vujo says Southwest Journal is one of his big money-makers, a top 50 performer in his collection. Last August, just a couple months after he obtained it for around $42,000, the website reportedly posted 2.5 million pageviews. It produced "a lot" of money that month Vujo says, declining to get more specific. Zac Farber, the last-ever editor of Southwest Journal, says the old site never approached that number. Google has since tinkered with its algorithm, and today the Southwest Journal does around 100,000 pageviews per month, according to Vujo. "You always fight against the Google, but it's still in my priority list," he says of SWJ.

Farber isn't thrilled about what happened to the website, and he's even less thrilled about articles written by his former colleagues that are now attributed to make-believe bylines. ("Legal and normal things," Vujo says.) He laments the fact SWJ's co-publishers, Janis Hall and Terry Gahan, didn't protect the domain or hand it over to staffers.

"I find it difficult to work up personal animosity against this opportunistic scammer," Farber says. "The Southwest Journal’s archives were of high value to Minneapolis residents, researchers, officials, and journalists looking to understand the recent history of the city. I’m frustrated that there are no guardrails in place to prevent this kind of civic vandalism."

Vujo uses several metaphors to describe his work, which he notes is perfectly legal. Recalling his past life as a DJ, he talks about how musicians struggle with creating niche work with meaning (think heartfelt neighborhood news) or commercial work with wide appeal (think luxury car listicles). "You can't stop technological process," he says of AI writing, busting out another metaphor: Cars produce planet-destroying greenhouse gasses, but nobody is going back to horse 'n' buggies. "I'm not a fan of my car, but I'm driving it."

"There are a billion websites out there," he says. "So, if you ask me, did I do anything wrong about SouthwestJournal.com? No I didn't. It's just the name connected with it… it's something you were nostalgic about in the past."

If a Twin Cities reader feels inspired to seize on that nostalgia? Vujo claims he would entertain offers for leasing out a vertical on SouthwestJournal.com that's dedicated to... news about southwest Minneapolis.

"This is a call to your readers: I'm open for business. OK, let's create—let's make America great again!" he says with a hearty chuckle.

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